Oklahoma Flutist and Vietnam Veteran, Albert Gray Eagle, Reflects on Art, Family History of Decorated Military Service & Post-Traumatic Stress
by Robin Brooks
There’s something about Albert Gray Eagle when you first meet him that is extraordinarily powerful, yet disarmingly subtle, sensitive, and silent. It is the quiet kind of confidence and strength that undoubtedly comes from years of experience connecting with other human beings on a deep, soulful level. As an obvious artist, one who is spiritually connected, Gray Eagle’s profound talents resonate with everyone he encounters.
“I have to reach way down into the depths of my soul…realize that there is something out there far greater than myself. It’s in every living thing that’s on this earth,” Gray Eagle said. “We have two sets of eyes: one to see with – to see things physically – and then one to see things around you in a different manner…someone who is hurting, someone you can talk to. I’ve been gifted to be able to talk to people one-on-one…about what’s bothering them,” said Gray Eagle. “You can spot a veteran a mile away. You look into his eyes…you know where he’s been.”
Gray Eagle, a globally known teaching artist affiliated with the Oklahoma Arts Council, is a featured musical performer and workshop instructor at the upcoming Military Experience & the Arts National Symposium, scheduled for May 14-17 on the campus of Cameron University in Lawton, Oklahoma. Gray Eagle will perform music, heavily tinged with patriotic themes and Native American storytelling roots, as well as provide instruction to military veterans and families in the traditional art of flute-making, utilizing authentic materials such as cane, reed, and clay. A Vietnam veteran who served in the U.S. Army, Gray Eagle is acutely aware of how the historical military experience and environment during the 1970s impacted Native American soldiers from a distinctly cultural perspective.
“As an American Indian, it was pretty rough. There were two or three of us in the entire brigade,” said Gray Eagle. “We were called up in front of everyone by a major general and, of course, he went through the spiel: ‘As members of separate nations, the United States Government would like to thank you for your service.’
The first comment I remember was from a staff sergeant in Kentucky who told me that I ‘should feel privileged that I was even allowed to serve after what the Indians had done to this country years ago!’ When they tell you something like that your self-worth goes down a lot, no matter how hard you try to be a better person. You always got this ethnic thing: ‘chief this, chief that.’
“During that time, American Indians were more decorated than any other culture. Yet, they were probably treated the worst,” Gray Eagle said. “It was just stuff people didn’t know…stereotypes…that’s what happens when you get people together. I lived with these guys coming straight off the field. I was a small, five-foot, nine-inch, 135 pound kid, who I guess from behind, looked Vietnamese. I was attacked…choked…they just went crazy, you know? I was seventeen years old,” said Gray Eagle.
As part of the MEA symposium’s focus on diversity and the arts, Gray Eagle will open a lunch-time film screening, courtesy of Oklahoma Educational Television Authority (OETA) and the Oklahoma Humanities Council, titled “Native Oklahoma: Native Vietnam Veterans.” A film panel discussion, including veterans profiled in the documentary, will take place immediately following the screening.
“My family is all veterans. I had a great uncle that got three Bronze Stars during World War II (a Bronze Star with arrowhead cluster), and a Purple Heart. Of course, his PTSD (Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder) was so bad he spent most of his life drunk, and had car accidents that I think were probably attempted suicides, you know? But he survived then, and he never talked about it until right before he died. He was eighty-four or eighty-five years old when he died,” Gray Eagle said. “My grandfather on my mom’s side served. He had a Bronze Star…and my uncles. They were all decorated. There was a lot of service.”
Gray Eagle compares his own difficulties reintegrating into society after coming home from Vietnam with those of his elder family members. “My grandfather…he didn’t know how to communicate with anybody, as I didn’t, when I got out of the military. He got jobs where he would herd sheep up in the mountains by himself. So, all he had was a few dogs and a horse, and he stayed in a…a small camper trailer for months at a time,” Gray Eagle said.
“When I went to work, I was an office manager at this farmer’s cooperative, but I had an office in the back corner where I didn’t have to deal with crowds of people,” he said. “When I was going to get a promotion, to the manager of the whole place, I had to go talk to a board of directors, and I didn’t care for that. So, the only job that I could find where I could be alone was driving a truck. I had my own little space, minimal dealing with people. It was an ideal job for my situation. It was basically the same as my uncle and grandfather,” Gray Eagle said.
“When I got out, I just wanted to go home. I wasn’t going to admit to anything that would keep me there. It was a shameful thing to have PTSD or anything wrong with you mentally because you were going to be labeled,” Gray Eagle said. “Nowadays, you know, they sign a document: ‘sound and ready to go home.’ Of course they are going to sign the paper! They’re not going to say, ‘I have a problem.’ It all depends on the severity of what you happen to see or feel, but the biggest thing is the label of ‘they’re crazy, they’re nuts, they’re whatever.’ Everybody’s got problems. Some people just handle it better than others,” said Gray Eagle.
Gray Eagle is sentimental and respectful of his family heritage, ancestors, and the older generations. Although he didn’t understand the concept fully as a younger man, where his knee-jerk reaction was to run away from his problems rather than ask for help, he is conscious today of the positive role and major impact older veterans who’ve served in prior wars and conflicts can have on the younger generation of veterans. Gray Eagle believes they understand like no one else can. He agrees the support is mutual; it can work both ways.
“There is a trust between veterans…and older generations. I think it is important when a veteran who has been there can talk to a younger veteran, because there is going to be an automatic piece of trust as compared to talking to a young psychiatrist that just got out of school who has a certain guideline to follow in a twelve-week program. There is no trust in somebody they think has read a book or learned from a book and has no idea what they’ve been through. They can’t ever let the veteran go outside of the guidelines,” Gray Eagle said.
“The first thing you need is a support system. If you don’t have any family left because you end up driving your family, your spouse, your kids even…you drive them away…there’s another veteran there to help you, to listen to you. You are not alone in this world,” said Gray Eagle. “I think the greatest tool out there to help a veteran is another veteran.” Gray Eagle is also lucky enough to credit his niece, who works and travels with him everywhere, as well as his wife, who he gives “props to for hanging in there,” as sources of comfort and support.
“My great uncle was like my dad. He never boasted about ribbons he had. As a matter of fact, I didn’t know that he had all these acknowledgements until right before he died. He spent most of his time alone, drunk or trying to kill himself,” Gray Eagle said. “He never reached out to [the] Veteran’s Administration or [a] hospital…He didn’t know how to. It was a big taboo to label yourself…that you’ve got a problem mentally or that your heart is broken, or your soul is hurting so bad that you find it hard to get up every morning to carry on.”
“And having so many awards at a time where Indians or any minority would not have gotten any type of recognition, it just amazes me what he actually went through, what he had to live with his whole life. I know why he was alone, why he wouldn’t talk, and why the only time he showed any affection was when he was drunk. It’s so sad. He was an amazing man that I looked up to.”
“My grandfather, my uncles…coming back from Vietnam…they were messed up. I totally understand, as a veteran myself, who they were and why they were the way they were. I’ve seen so many die young because they never asked for help. That’s why we are averaging twenty-two suicides a day of veterans. That’s a lot. That’s twenty-two too many,” said Gray Eagle.
Gray Eagle received a very special gift as a child that has served him well as an adult survivor of military trauma; which included severe beatings, racial hostility, and witnessing the catastrophic circumstances surrounding the death and disabling wounding of two friends from Texas who just so happened to be brothers.“I wasn’t qualified to be there,” he said.
“I was so far down…and it was a gift given to me when I was five years old, a flute that I learned to play, that saved me. During my darkest times as a kid, I always had a place where I’d go and play it and I’d release all of this negativity…get it out. The flute has saved my life, all the way through! My art is my best survival tool. I have that and, sometimes, the company of another veteran,” said Gray Eagle. “Veterans that get into the arts at the VA, in music or pottery, they seem to do far better than anybody else. So, that’s my healing. I pretty much had to manage my own way out of ego, pride, whatever, to find my own ways of healing to survive,” said Gray Eagle. “I do have something to offer to the world, and it’s a peaceful art, a solution to all these bad feelings that I’ve held deep inside…the hurt and the heartbreak.”
Gray Eagle’s music and healing catharsis has incredibly far-reaching effects, as he is constantly sharing what he has learned with others in every part of the world. He tells a wonderful story about making a special, lower-C-register flute for a World War II veteran from Topeka, Kansas. Although the elderly veteran is confined to a wheelchair, Gray Eagle is fascinated with how he continues to use this form of musical art to stay overjoyed and alive.
In one of the most meaningful and emotional experiences of Gray Eagle’s life, he describes how he once met two individuals at a National Veterans Creative Arts festival in Wisconsin, both on a USO tour, who helped him fulfill a life-long dream.
“I told them: ‘I would like to send some flutes to Iraq…Afghanistan…to the soldiers over there.’ Well, being on the USO tour, they told me they could make that happen. I had made two-thousand flutes. I do Sundance and ceremonies like that, and I had one of those Sundance priests smoke them off, bless them, whatever you want to say. So, they went to Afghanistan and they found these soldiers! They took the time to give these individual flutes to these soldiers…and some of the emails I got back were just awesome! It was a blessing…to be able to pass something on that was given to me and send them overseas to a combat zone, where maybe some of these guys could find some peace, too, in the middle of all the chaos.”
It was great, he says, “for two people to come into my life like that and allow me to fulfill something I had always wanted to do for someone else, and to do it and take the time to find the American Indian soldiers that were stationed there. I told them I didn’t care who got one because, culturally, they belong to everybody in the world. Everybody in history played a flute for some reason or other, so I just wanted it to be a gift… if they found someone to give them to,” Gray Eagle said.
Gray Eagle credits amazing, miraculous moments like these; working with children at camps and schools; teaching suicide prevention classes; being present for his daughter, who also suffers from military-related trauma; and being accessible to those veterans in need at the VA and beyond, with helping him wake-up every morning and continue the long and winding journey towards health and healing.
“When I get a piece of wood…and feel the life that used to be in that piece of wood…it’s like giving life to create sound. It’s like our second heart. We have a heart that pumps our blood, but then we have the heart that our soul rests in, that you can reach for deep inside…and feel like you’ve done something,” Gray Eagle said.
“We all have many resources, but we have to find the one that finds us. Because once you get into that dark place or that hole, it’s so hard to dig out. Art is about the fastest way I know of to get out. If I can be a part of that…volunteering or visiting another veteran…and share a piece of my art…that’s awesome. I’m glad that I was invited to the MEA symposium to be able to give a little piece of hope. Maybe someone will pick up what I do, pick up the flute. I love to play music. I love to do it. It’s the one thing that has saved my life over and over again, but it’s not just the art itself. It’s what happens when you’re doing the art that’s the medicine. When I put my soul into my art, it puts me in a place that’s peaceful.”
“To allow something positive to happen, people can’t do it alone. No matter how strong you think you are, you know, we were put on this earth to be there for each other…to help one another. It doesn’t happen with one person. We have to respect everything and everyone around us. If you can help somebody, by all means, it’s your duty as a human being,” Gray Eagle said.
Additional background information on Albert Gray Eagle can be found at http://www.imaginativz.com. Registration and general information about Military Experience & the Arts’ National Symposium can be found on its homepage. Registration costs $20. Active duty service members and spouses with military I.D. cards can register free-of-charge.